Servant Leadership Finetuned

Why I think Ken Blanchard got it wrong.

You may be wondering…wow…how can she openly say leadership Guru Ken Blanchard got it wrong?? Let me be clear from the start. I’m not here to discredit one of my favorite leadership experts. I’m here to share how I feel the word “Servant” doesn’t do the concept justice and offer a shift in language that would do it justice.

I cut my leadership teeth on John Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.” Those were the days in the early 2000’s when I worked for a financial services company. I naively had taken on the task of creating a market in the Denver Metro area without the necessary experience to do the job or a company that backed up its promises. Also, in hindsight, a terrible market to grow a financial education business in leading up to the bubble that popped in 2008. In the early 2000’s questionable financial practices like interest-only loans had people mesmerized and living beyond their means — and loving it. This is the environment where I learned leadership pretty much on my own with Maxwell’s books as my guide…before I wore out of his never-ending lists of things that came with each new book and began adding new authors to my leadership library.

Life happened and through a twist of fate…or sheer destiny… I ended up as one of the few female managers of a waste company back in Nebraska, my home state. (that’s a story for another day!) At the annual meeting my 2nd year of working with them the CEO Ron Middelstadt announced that the company was embracing a concept called Servant Leadership. I was ecstatic as I could see there was a lot missing from the company’s leadership culture.

That was the first time I heard Ken Blanchard speak in person. He outlined the idea of Servant Leadership. Wikipedia sums up servant leadership well in these words “Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve. … A servant leader shares power, puts the needs of the employees first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Shawn Mandel, Waste Connections VP of Safety and Risk Management says this about the results created by the servant leadership culture since it was launched in 2005:

Embracing our safety-focused, Servant Leadership-driven culture has reduced incident frequency by 70% over our 20 year history. We obsessively strive for ZERO incidents and are most proud of this accomplishment given its positive impacts on our employees, customers and the communities in which we live and work. (Culture Matters Pg 14)

I lived those results! I remember the day we first were encouraged to DRIVE TO ZERO — that is zero safety incidents in a rolling 12 month period. I didn’t believe it was possible. Over the next few years, I embraced the idea and led multiple teams to ZERO incident years. This shift in safety culture was a direct result of the Servant Leadership Culture being infused throughout the company.

So if servant leadership can offer such powerful results what could be improved? This concept is even more powerful when we shift to thinking of it as heart-centered leadership.

Here’s why: First and foremost I saw many young leaders struggle with the definition and distinctions of the word “servant.”

A quick google for the definition of servant provides this definition: “a person who performs duties for others, especially a person employed in a house on domestic duties or as a personal attendant.”

This is where I saw a struggle between pre-programmed ideas that reflect this traditional interpretation of servant and the leadership definition. Most individuals have some preconceived ideas that a servant is there to take direction from and perform the “duty” of the masters. The Waste-Connections/Ken Blanchard interpretation of servant leadership inverts the traditional reporting structure model and teaches leaders that they are now “servants” of all of their employees.

The spirit of the WCN-Blanchard version of course was that leaders are there to do what’s in the best interest of their teams and they have due diligence to provide a culture that serves the best interest of all — employees, customers and corporate. Leaders who lacked the emotional intelligence to distinguish between their preconceived notion of the word servant and the new definition — even when clear training and guidance was provided — struggled with how to implement this in reality. To the struggling young leader, it felt the employee now ran the show.

At times, it emboldened the employees to demand things that they were not entitled to and the managers to appease when accountability would have been a better approach. These small distinctions are only understood with maturing EQI growth and without that, they had significant consequences in reality.

Through my study of emotional intelligence, language and neuroscience I now understand how challenging it is to “reprogram” a preconceived idea. Proponents of this philosophy may have underestimated the deep belief unconsciously developed in most people that a servant is someone there to do the bidding of the master. And Suddenly these managers had 20–200 masters!

After many years of living servant leadership and studying leadership here is what I propose: We replace the word servant with “heart-centered.” Heart-centered means having the best interest of everyone involved as the guiding factor. It’s easy to draw comparisons from other areas of life to apply to business with this language. We know that when we have our family’s best interest at heart it doesn’t mean we “appease and make everyone happy.”

It does mean that every decision that is made considers the welfare of the individuals on the team, the team as a whole, and the company that employs the team. It means that each member of the team has to be accountable for the greater outcome.

I also believe that for leaders to be genuine heart-centered leaders they have to be willing to set aside their own ego, commit to their own personal and emotional intelligence development and learn to manage with a coach-approach.

I spent five years learning emotionally intelligent leadership through Synovation Leadership Academy, gaining training and credentials as an ICF Certified Professional Coach and an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Certification. These experiences have helped me to define a new way of leadership that I call NLHL — Neurolinguistic Heart-Centered Leadership.

NLHL addresses the idea that we each arrive into a workplace with different levels of emotional intelligence, varied personal and work history, and a desire to be seen and treated like a human, not a number. Ken Blanchard’s form of servant leadership goes a long way to address these and its concept and impact can be amplified tremendously with a few language and leadership skill adjustments. I’ll address these in-depth in future articles.

I am very grateful for my almost fifteen years in the Waste Connections Servant Leadership Culture. It enhanced my natural curiosity and talent for leadership and was the catalyst for continuing leadership development and growth outside of the workplace and today working privately as a leadership coach.



Vicki Haddock, Authentic Leadership Guide

Vicki Haddock, Authentic Leadership Coach, Author and Guide is a catalyst to help her audience find healing, connection, and inspired action.